Art and architecture appear to go comfortably hand-in- hand. But what about music and architecture?
The German writer Goethe famously described architecture as ‘frozen music’, and this reminds us of the fact that both are creative disciplines. But I’ve often wondered how useful this analogy is to understanding either art form, never mind imagining how the two might intersect.
It certainly underscores how different they are as forms of culture: buildings are all about their solid, physical presence, whereas music is something we can’t see, touch or hold on to; it exists by moving through time, like a liquid without its own fixed physical form.
Yet I’m sure I am not alone in having strong associations between particular places and certain pieces of music, and this involuntary connection that the brain makes is something that has long fascinated me.
For example, whenever I see Smeaton’s Tower (1759) on Plymouth Hoe, I hear in my mind Haircut 100’s ‘Fantastic Day’ which, back in the 1980s, connected perfectly with the surroundings on a beautiful summer afternoon via my portable radio.
It works the other way around, too. When I listen to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court and Spark’ (1974), it takes me back to the time, some years ago, when I heard it on my iPod while travelling on Tokyo’s monorail. I was feeling a little alienated and disorientated, and the familiar music helped. It seems that, by adding a soundtrack, my memories of those buildings and places are more powerful. It’s as if by engaging more than one sense at once – hearing and sight – the brain solidifies the experience.
Composers have long responded to the fabric of our cities in their creative output, and made deliberate connections between architecture and music. In the Anglican choral tradition, for example, music was composed in response to specific churches, taking into account the unique shape and material qualities of the building and the acoustic potential they offered. Some music was even named after the buildings – think of Herbert Howells’ ‘Gloucester Service’ (1946) and ‘St Paul’s Service’ (1951), composed for those great cathedrals. Yet in our contemporary secular world, where commerce has replaced religion as the driving force in the evolution of our cities, it’s perhaps not as common a connection. Seemingly every new steel- and-glass building has artworks for its lobby and plaza, but not music. If it is used at all, it is usually an afterthought, chosen to be inoffensive and unchallenging, as the phrase ‘lift music’ reminds us.